Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 3: A Wizard Alone (Original Edition)

(This review was first posted Mar 3, 2013. It has received minor edits for clarity and style.)

Today’s Book: “A Wizard Alone” by Diane Duane.

The Plot: In a contemporary YA fantasy setting, a budding wizard named Darryl has gotten stuck in his Ordeal – a wizards’ initiation. Teenage wizards Nita and Kit are sent to figure out what’s gone wrong.

Autistic Character(s): Darryl McAllister.

I really don’t know where to start with this book. Darryl is central to the plot, and there are some very good and very bad aspects of the way he is portrayed. I’m going to start with the good ones, I guess, because there are fewer of them.

First, Darryl is African-American. This is excellent because autism is so often portrayed as something that affects white male children, with maybe a few white girls sneaking in every once in a while. Intersectionality is always a plus. (Kit is also Latin-American, FYI.)

Second, Darryl is intensely good and intensely likeable. We quickly find out that he’s not a helpless victim stuck in his own Ordeal: he’s deliberately drawing it out for reasons that are complicated, but logical, and beneficial to the world around him. And despite having no support whatsoever, he approaches this task with a deep, cheerful courage that instantly endears me to him forever.

Third, the book touches on the problem of one’s preconceptions of disabled people influencing one’s perceptions of them. The first few times Kit sees Darryl, he expects Darryl to be a helpless victim, so that’s what he sees. Kit doesn’t find out the truth about what Darryl is doing until Darryl makes magical contact with Nita – who doesn’t know that he’s autistic, or even that he’s human. Kit then realizes that because he had an idea in his mind about what autistic people were and weren’t capable of, he couldn’t see what Darryl really was capable of. This is a very important point and Duane gets props for putting it in there.

Those are the good points. Now for the bad ones. First, there’s the “cure” theme: as part of what’s otherwise a fairly clever ploy at the end of the book, Nita and Kit give Darryl a magic Get Out Of Autism Free card. (Not literally a card, but you know what I mean.) I need to make a whole separate post on the problems with “cure” stories.

It’s not just the ending, though. Duane attempts to give helpful information about autism to her readers, but most of it is so incorrect that I don’t even know what to say. We are told, for example, that people are not born with autism but become autistic at various ages; that autistic people avoid eye contact because they cannot stand the idea that other people exist; that neurotypical people do not understand what autism is like because not enough autistic people have been cured and “come back” to tell neurotypical people about it; that autism is caused (at least in Darryl’s case) by the devil, and is easily magically separable from the rest of Darryl’s personality; that the withdrawal/retreat symptoms of autism are identical to the symptoms of depression; that all autistic people are hypersensitive rather than hyposensitive to sensory stimuli; and so on. I can’t talk about what’s wrong with each of these points here because it would make this post even longer than the Vernor Vinge one. But they are all incorrect and all harmful.

Furthermore, while Darryl is quite likable, many aspects of his characterization make no sense. He switches very quickly and repeatedly between being completely unaware that other people exist, and being conscious enough of them to use some fairly sophisticated theory of mind. Not only does this speed of switching make no sense, but there’s no middle ground. Darryl never has any realistic impairments in understanding people’s beliefs and motivations, he just forgets that they exist. Duane makes attempts to explain this, but they make no sense either. Apparently, Darryl’s autism causes the world around him to be too painful to deal with, so he intentionally forgets that other people exist, and then remembers again for a while, and then forgets again, and… Yeah. It’s just silly.

The big thing that bothers me about this book, though, is the conflation of autism with depression. This is not a minor point. A significant subplot of the book involves Nita grieving for her mother’s death (which happened in a previous book) and struggling with her own depression. There are some nice things about how this subplot is handled. But Nita doesn’t start to beat her depression until she makes contact with Darryl – and realizes that her withdrawal from the world, in her depressed state, is identical to his. Not that Nita is autistic, of course; they just happen to both be withdrawing from “real”, “meaningful” engagement with the world because it’s too painful. After talking to Darryl, Nita realizes that this is unhealthy for her and she has to stop. She talks Darryl out of it too, which is where the Get Out Of Autism Free card comes in.

Never mind that Darryl is kicking epic-level supernatural butt in his Ordeal while withdrawing from “real”, “meaningful” engagement everywhere else. Apparently that doesn’t make his withdrawal more acceptable. Duane pays attention to Darryl’s awesomeness when she’s actually talking about him, but she’s happy to ignore it when she’s using him to make a point about NTs.

This bothers me for a very personal reason.

Depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders affect autistic people too.

Did you read that? Depression is not the natural state of an autistic person. It is a mood disorder that either NT or autistic people can develop, which means there’s actual intersectionality between depression and autism.

A depressed autistic person does not need you to cure their autism. A depressed autistic person needs you to fix whatever is causing the actual depression – whether that’s an imbalance in brain chemistry, an abusive home/work situation, poor mental coping strategies, or what. If you’re going around saying “but autism is just like depression anyway”, you are NOT HELPING.

And that’s the part of “A Wizard Alone” that’s going to really stay with me.

The Verdict: Not Recommended

NOTE: Diane Duane is aware of criticisms of the portrayal of autism in this book. In the New Millennium Edition of her Young Wizards series, a lot of things are updated, and the portrayal of autism is one of the updated things. The New Millennium Edition of “A Wizard Alone” is reviewed separately in Autistic Book Party, Episode 9.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 1: Blind Lake

(This review was first published on December 12, 2012. It has been given minor edits for clarity and style.)

Today’s Book: “Blind Lake” by Robert Charles Wilson.

The Plot: Scientists are using a super powerful quantum computer to look at aliens on another planet. Then suddenly their town is put under quarantine for reasons that are not explained to them, the aliens begin behaving strangely, and everyone has to figure out what’s going on.

Autistic Character(s): Tess Hauser, an eleven-year-old girl.

Tess isn’t a protagonist (the protagonists are her mother Marguerite and a science journalist named Chris), but she is one of an ensemble of viewpoint characters and plays an important role in the plot. She is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome several years before the story begins, and while there are a number of therapies in her past – including medication – Marguerite has come to accept her autism simply as a personality type.

Marguerite is a realistic portrayal of a well-meaning NT parent. She is long past the point of trying to “fix” Tess, but it is still painfully obvious to her when Tess is less communicative than other children, or when she has trouble making friends. Marguerite and Tess have recently moved to a new city when the story begins, and Marguerite worries a lot about how Tess will do at her new school – at least until the plot throws bigger problems at both of them.

But Marguerite’s view of Tess isn’t the only one we get. We see plenty of scenes through Tess’s eyes, and Tess wastes little time thinking about her differences from other children. Instead, when reading from Tess’s POV, we see how intelligent she is, and how easily she is captivated by weather, nature, and symmetry. Tess is uncommunicative, not because she has no opinions, but because she is constantly lost in thought about things the other characters aren’t thinking about. Wilson shows us these thoughts appealingly and convincingly without ever putting too fine a point on how they differ from the thoughts of the adults. This is a very tricky point, and one that you can’t get right just by looking at the DSM, but Wilson, in my view, gets it right.

We also see Tess through the eyes of other adults who don’t worry about her as much as Marguerite does. Her father doesn’t think about her autism much at all (though he is the villain, and his attitude to Tess is mostly possessive). Meanwhile, Chris befriends Tess and accepts her immediately; in fact, Tess reminds him of his own younger sister.

But there’s one more point about Tess that I need to bring up before giving her the “cluefully written Aspie character” stamp, and that is the fact that Tess sees things other characters don’t believe in. Unfortunately, I can’t talk about this without EXTREMELY MAJOR SPOILERS, so follow me under the cut if you dare!

Continue reading “Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 1: Blind Lake”

Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 0: Movement

(This post was published on February 26, 2012 – hard to believe that’s more than five whole years ago. It’s about Nancy Fulda’s short story, “Movement”, which was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula that year. You may note that this post is not structured like other Autistic Book Party posts, and that it doesn’t give as much context or introduction to the story it’s talking about. This is because it actually predates the Autistic Book Party series, as such. It’s the very first autism review I ever posted publicly. Please enjoy this blast from the past!)

I want to say this as concisely as I can.

Naming a fictional condition after autism, when even the characters in the story agree it is nothing like autism, is a bizarre choice. Cashing in on autism in this manner while it’s trendy is not helpful to autistic people, our families, or anyone else.

Writing a bad depiction of autism, and saying “but it isn’t real autism!”, does not excuse you for writing a bad depiction of autism.

Real autistic people have things going on in our lives other than autism. “I don’t want to be cured” is a nice sentiment, but it rings a little hollow when it is the conclusion to a story in which nothing happens except other people being unhappy with the protagonist’s not-autism, other people wanting to “cure” her, and her trying to deal with her perceptual differences. These are things that happen in the lives of most autistic people, but a story with this structure inherently distorts and romanticizes them.

You can write a story like this and still be an ally of neurodiversity. But writing a story like this does not make you an ally. Reading a story like this does not make you an ally. Voting for a story like this in awards season does not make you an ally. It is, in fact, unhelpful.

Real autistic people’s lives are not like this story.

It’s not my job to tell you what to vote for. Vote for what you like. But please understand what it is you are voting for.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 32: Otherbound

Today’s Book: “Otherbound” by Corinne Duyvis

The Plot: Every time Nolan (a modern teenager) blinks, he sees through the eyes of Amara, a servant girl in a fantasy world.

Autistic Character(s): The author.

This is my second review of one of Duyvis’s books, after “On the Edge of Gone”. Although “Otherbound” has no autistic characters and runs on a completely different premise, the two books share a diverse, disabled cast and a keen awareness of the power dynamics that constrain each character.

Seeing through the eyes of someone in another world sounds cool, until you stop and think about what it would actually entail. The connection between Nolan and Amara is invasive and unpleasant for both of them. Amara doesn’t want to be constantly watched, even in her most private moments, by a person she doesn’t know. Nolan doesn’t want to be constantly distracted from what’s happening in front of him by his uncontrollable visions – especially when Amara spends time being abused, injured, even tortured, in ways Nolan feels but can do nothing about. When he does find methods to affect Amara’s world, they are methods that can violate Amara’s agency. Duyvis does a good job showing the complexities of how the two of them try to deal with this and to negotiate boundaries – clumsily, imperfectly, a little at a time and with a lot of justified resentment.

Nolan’s periods of distraction have been misdiagnosed as a form of epilepsy. The trope of a character being misdiagnosed because of their magical powers can be problematic, but Duyvis handles it deftly. The trick is that Nolan is genuinely disabled by his visions. He’s not an able-bodied person who was called disabled because people misunderstood him; he’s a disabled person who got told the wrong name for his disability. Because of his visions, he can’t keep up with school, maintain normal friendships, or even fold laundry successfully; that’s how difficult it is for him to focus on the world that is around him. Meanwhile, other disabilities and forms of diversity are also represented. Before the book begins, Nolan lost his foot in a car accident (caused by his visions). He belongs to a Latinx family and speaks both Spanish and English at home; money is a problem, and his mother has taken a second job to help pay for his medicine. Amara is bisexual, her world is predominantly nonwhite, and she is non-speaking, because her tongue was cut out when she became a servant: servants in her world converse using sign language.

You might have guessed already from these descriptions that a lot of unpleasant things happen in this book. They do. And, especially in the first half of the book, Amara and Nolan are both relatively helpless in the face of these unpleasant things. It can be difficult to slog through scene after scene of Amara being treated horribly and Nolan running off to curl up somewhere and feel sick. This does improve as the book goes on: characters gain more control and more agency, and the pace picks up. The last third in particular is delightfully full of nail-biting twists as the characters discover secrets about why they are connected as they are, and what that means for their worlds.

A lack of character agency in places might also be an unfair criticism, because it’s intimately connected to one of “Otherbound”‘s greatest strengths: its keen awareness of power dynamics. Amara lacks agency, not because of anything wrong with her as a person, but because she’s been trained since childhood to do nothing but obey and will be punished if she deviates. The people who abuse her are bad in an obvious way, but Duyvis spends just as much time detailing subtler ways in which power affects Amara’s life. She is attracted to the princess she serves, for instance, but their power difference makes that attraction difficult to deal with in ways that the princess’s sincere attempts at kindness do nothing to fix. The princess herself is under a magical curse in which any small injury could kill her, and this makes her dependent on others for help. As mentioned, Nolan and Amara’s connection brings additional forms of powerlessness into both lives which are difficult to deal with. And while Nolan lives a materially more comfortable life, he has his own power problems: not least of which is the fact that he has to lie to his family and his doctor to conceal what’s really happening during his “seizures”.

(This leads to one of my few other criticisms, which is so small that I really don’t feel it’s worth mentioning, but I’m compulsive and I have to. Duyvis mentions in the epilogue that Nolan ends up seeing a therapist who helps him deal with the trauma of what happened to him during the book. I understand why this line would be included: it’s good to show trauma being real, and characters going to therapy for it without being judged. But Nolan previously spends the entire book hiding his visions from everyone because no one will believe him; most people would classify his visions as hallucinations or delusions. So where does he suddenly find a therapist who believes him and who gives him appropriate PTSD therapy instead of trying to treat him for being delusional? And how does he explain this therapist to his parents? Therapy is not equally accessible to everyone, and that is a point that people often forget.)

Like “On the Edge of Gone”, “Otherbound” is at times a difficult read, but a well-crafted one which has important things to say about agency and power, and which sensitively portrays an intersectionally diverse world. If you can stand the abuse scenes, you could do a lot worse than to pick this one up.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Ethics statement: I have occasionally corresponded with Corinne Duyvis and have posted reviews on her Disability in Kidlit site. I read her book by borrowing an e-copy from my local library. All opinions expressed here are my own.

This book was chosen by my Patreon backers. If these reviews are valuable to you, consider becoming a backer; for as little as $1, you can join in voting on the next autistic book.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 31: Marginalia to Stone Bird

Today’s Book: “Marginalia to Stone Bird”, a poetry collection by Rose Lemberg

Autistic Character(s): The author.

I am going to try to write this review in a way that isn’t just jumping up and down and squeeing, because quite apart from the issue of being autistic, Lemberg is one of my favourite speculative poets ever and “Marginalia to Stone Bird” is their debut collection. And although I write poetry I do not think I am very good at reviewing it in detail, but I will try.

“Marginalia to Stone Bird” is a collection of speculative poems (almost entirely fantasy, with a single sci-fi scenario thrown in). The topics of the poems progress from magic realism firmly set in the real world, to folktales and love stories in fairytale-like settings, to the mythic, epic Journeymaker Cycle that dominates the last third. All of them are written in the lush, ornate language that is Lemberg’s trademark:

Give me of these fine threads that sing with indigo and weld,
I’ll make them into a carpet of my hurts,
knot them into a desert alive with Bird’s burning,
I’ll weave—with undyed wool and spidersilk—
the bones out of their hiding places.

This kind of language will not be to everyone’s taste. But I love it, and the ornateness is never at the expense of making sense. The poems also play off each other well enough that reading some will provide useful context for others; many, for instance, are set in the same world, Birdverse (also the setting of “Grandmother Nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds“, “The Book of How to Live“, “The Desert Glassmaker and the Jeweler of Berevyar“, and “Geometries of Belonging“).

Lemberg’s poetry is very socially aware. The first third of the book, mainly magic realism, is centered firmly in the experience of oppression in the real world: immigration, faith and doubt, war, a failing marriage. The middle section translates these oppressions to the fantasy realm: its heroes are exploited peasants, abandoned women, unwanted people whose surroundings and cultures never treat them particularly well. (At least one is trans.) The Journeymaker Cycle, in the final third, makes this awareness both larger and more inward. It’s a winding story that unfolds across multiple lifetimes, in which its reincarnated heroes struggle with the use and abuse of their power, taking refuge in powerlessness and then eventually needing to reclaim power; in which they try to use their power to help, and help many, but also run up dramatically short against the limits of that ability. (Readers who liked the healing-and-consent themes in “Geometries of Belonging” will be fascinated by the additional complexity that they take on in the poem “Long Shadow”.) The shorter, more magical realist poems of the final third also play off of these themes, presenting a narrator who is afraid of their own power, afraid to speak or create, and yet who feels inevitably drawn to creation.

There is a theme of doubling that recurs throughout the work, most obviously in one of its early poems, “The Three Immigrations”. While a real-world character moves from country to country in fraught and desparate circumstances, other characters in a surreal and mythic world do the same. Characters in “Marginalia to Stone Bird” are mirrored by their counterparts in other worlds, by ghosts, by other identities with other genders sharing their body, by the people they were in past lives. The fantastical is always present, even in what would seem to be a very unvarnished real-world scene – and the difficult, complex social and emotional webs that constrain people’s actions in the real world are never quite absent, either, even at the collection’s wildest and most mythic.

If anyone tells you that autistic people cannot imagine whole worlds with attendant mythology, or create beautiful phrases, or imagine other people’s lives, or write about complex social situations movingly and with empathy – point them at this poetry collection, please.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Ethics statement: Rose Lemberg is someone I consider a fairly close friend. I asked for an electronic review copy of this collection and was given one for free. All opinions expressed here are my own.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 30 And A Half: Short Story Smorgasbord – Award Edition!

Today I’m going to do something a little bit special. I worried that, by separating my Recommended stories into Recommended-1 (for stories with autistic characters, regardless of author) and Recommended-2 (for stories by autistic authors with no autistic characters in them), I would be somehow ghettoizing the work of autistic authors. Instead, I feel freer and more excited about reviewing stories that would go in the Recommended-2 category. I’m no longer putting pressure on myself to justify why these works are as relevant to Autism Issues as the Recommended-1 stories; I can let them be their own, good, thing.

In this spirit, I want to review four short works by autistic authors that are up for awards this year. Let’s celebrate some autistic award nominees!

*

Rose Lemberg, “The Ash Manifesto” (Strange Horizons, October 10, 2016)

[Autistic author] A powerful poem about personal strength (and un-strength), written in gorgeous, mythic words. “The Ash Manifesto” was one of my favourite speculative poems of 2016, and is one of two poems of Lemberg’s to be nominated for the Rhysling award this year. [Recommended-2]

*

A. Merc Rustad, “This Is Not A Wardrobe Door” (Fireside, January 2016)

[Autistic author] A 2016 Nebula finalist, this is a subversive take on portal fantasies in which two friends in different worlds attempt to fix the malfunctioning portal that is keeping them apart. It’s a short, sweet tale with a firm emphasis on the value of community and connection, and some gorgeous, surreal descriptions. There is also some minor, but nice, queer content. [Recommended-2]

*

A.J. Odasso – “Nothing Goes Away” (The New England Review of Books, November 30, 2016)

[Autistic author] A poem that uses beautiful language to describe a moment of inaccuracy by a doctor, and the sheer density of thought that can occur in a moment in response. I don’t know if this poem is autobiographical, but it is certainly meant to be read as the experience of an autistic person who is similar to the author, and it succeeds at that. It is one of three poems of Odasso’s that are nominated for the Rhysling award this year. [Recommended-1]

*

Bogi Takacs, “Marginalia on Eiruvin 45b” (Bracken, issue ii)

[Autistic author] A poem about a character, like some of Takács’ fictional protagonists, who accumulates intense levels of magical power in their body and has to learn to let some of it go. (Eiruvin 45b is a verse from the Talmud, which, as far as Google can tell me, has to do with movement and water – but you don’t have to be a Talmudic scholar to understand the basic events in the poem and appreciate the way they are described.) “Marginalia” is a Rhysling nominee this year in the short category. [Recommended-2]

*

Of course I cannot review my own work, but just to round out the set, I will note here that my own short poem, “The Giantess’s Dream“, has also been nominated for this year’s Rhyslings.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 30: This Other World

Today’s Book: “This Other World” by A.C. Buchanan

Autistic Character(s): Vonika, a human woman living in an alien country.

I have decided that, while novelettes can go under Short Story Smorgasbord, novellas deserve a full Autistic Book Party episode. “This Other World” was first published in the anthology Winter Well, but has since then been self-published as a standalone. On many platforms (I used Kobo), the self-published version is available for free.

Vonika is the protagonist of “This Other World”. She’s a human living among the aliens of the city-state Temia. Like many real-life autistic humans who move to another country, Vonika finds that in some ways, she is more accepted among aliens: her strange behaviors are thought of as a foreigner’s quirks instead of being pathologized. Her autism isn’t her only reason for feeling at home on Temia. Vonika excels in a career (architectural engineering) that is needed on Temia, and has a warm, stable romantic relationship with a Temian woman.

As a menopausal woman, Vonika will soon undergo a Temian rite of passage called Ha-Ran, in which older adults become telepathically connected to each other and enter a more communal life. But Vonika’s transition may not be going according to plan. She’s beginning to experience bursts of telepathic perception, even though she hasn’t yet ingested the drugs that cause Ha-Ran to occur. And war is breaking out between Temia and one of its neighboring countries – a war Temia is likely to lose.

“This Other World” is not “about” autism, but Vonika’s autism is well-drawn, consistently coloring her reactions to people, events, and her surroundings without becoming a replacement for agency. Vonika has an aversion to crowds, bright colors, and shallow social pleasantries; a factual, detail-oriented thinking style; and a phenomenal memory for architectural detail. Her way of thinking is described matter-of-factly through most of the story, with a light touch and an occasional hint of dry humor:

She tells half-truths of loyalty and determination. Says she needs to show faith in her new home. That she doesn’t give up when things get tough. There are, of course, elements of truth in all of these, but telling the whole story would make her sound ridiculous, unbalanced even. I don’t like change is not generally considered a strong reason for staying in a war zone.

In the hands of a clumsy NT author, the temptation to make Vonika’s autism the major conflict in a story like this would be irresistible. The story would end up being all about the supposed contrast between autism and telepathy, and the inner conflict that this causes for the character. Happily, Buchanan avoids this trope. Ha-Ran, even if it works for humans, won’t fundamentally alter who Vonika is. While she does feel some minor reluctance, it’s only because does not like change, and is relatively easily dealt with. Meanwhile, she gets a plot full of other interesting things to do, a war to survive, and a mystery to solve – because she is not the only one experiencing early Ha-Ran, and as the war progresses, the number of cases is increasing.

Spoiling the solution to this mystery would be unfair, but I found the solution one of the most satisfying parts of the novella. It’s something that sheds an interesting light on human ideas about empathy and belonging, and about empathy as the primary cause of morality – ideas which are often used to paint autistic people as inherently inferior – and about what those ideas can, and can’t, actually solve.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 29: Experimental Film

Today’s Book: “Experimental Film” by Gemma Files

The Plot: Lois Cairns, a Canadian film critic, stumbles upon an antique film that could make her career – but the film’s supernatural connections prove to be more than she bargained for.

Autistic Character(s): Several, as described below.

“Experimental Film” is a complicated book. It’s a horror novel, to get that out of the way; it’s a book in which people are messed up and bad things happen to them. The most obvious autistic character, mentioned in the back cover copy, is Lois’s son Clark. Clark is a whirlwind of energy who speaks mostly in echolalia, but before we talk much about him, I want to talk about Lois.

Lois begins the novel in a fairly traditional posture, for an autism parent – exasperated and worried by her child, pessimistic about his prognosis, and generally stressed and exhausted. The first scenes in which Clark appears are difficult to get through, because of some of Lois’s negative mental comments about him. But the scenes also introduce a complication that the back cover didn’t mention:

But my version of fucked up was never going to be enough like his to help us meet in the middle; I come from the other end of the spectrum. And I remember sitting next to my mom, going down the list of Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis points one by one, showing her how much they reminded me of how I’d been as a child, an adolescent, before socialization kicked the worst of it out of me. “Little Professor Syndrome,” check. Rabid enthusiasms, check. Inability to converse without monologizing, check. Vocabulary far exceeding normal age standards, check. Frustration, check. Inability to form friendships, check. Violent tantrums, check. Self-harm, check. Check, check, check.
“Don’t you see?” I asked her. “This is why this happened. Because I’m just like him, except it’s all on the inside.”
She looked at me then with what might have been sympathy, but what I read (at the time) as contempt, the way I’m prone to do. Because – another check – I’ve never really been able to tell what other people are thinking just by looking at their faces, unless their faces are up on a movie screen.
“Come on, Lois,” she said. “It’s bad enough as it is. Don’t try to make this all about you.

What the book shows about Lois confirms that she is, in fact, autistic. She is fixed and fanatical in her interests. She comes of to other characters as strange, prickly, difficult to deal with. She is easily overwhelmed, shutting down and dissociating under stress. She is confused about human motivation, or sometimes fails to take it into account at all. Lois’s narrative voice is not the stereotyped “autism voice”, but it is a voice full of intense detail, dense information, frequent asides to passionately explain something – a voice that rings very true to me, as an autistic person.

So – this is important. “Experimental Film” is marketed as a book about an Autism Parent, but it’s actually a book about more than one autistic person. Lois – low-support, depressed, passing for abled, and additionally disabled with more than one form of chronic pain – experiences her autism in one way. Clark, who at this point in his life cannot possibly pass, experiences it in another, and Lois doesn’t always know how to deal with him appropriately, any more than an NT mother would.

Lois does several things right. She never denies her child’s humanity or devalues his life. There’s no mention of ABA or any other abusive therapy. Lois consistently pushes back against people, including her own mother, who suggest that Clark should simply be trained to parrot the correct response. She knows very well that Clark needs to be accepted for who he is, and is extremely critical of her own failures to do that.

Because Lois does fail in many ways. She barely pays attention to Clark for the first hundred pages of the book. She says negative things in front of him that she assumes he will not understand. (And is called on it – rightly – by her husband Simon, a very sweet and patient man who seems to do most of the childcare.) Clark is shown being clearly affectionate to both parents, but Lois insists that she cannot know he loves her, that his echolalic statements about it somehow don’t count the way they do when they’re directed at Simon. Her general pattern with Clark is one of distance:

But I have to protect myself, first and foremost: not from him, but from my own… disappointment in him, over things he can’t even help… I have to keep myself just far enough apart from him to be able to love him at all, knowing it’ll never be as much as he deserves to be loved. And that’s not because he’s broken, no. Not at all.
That’s because I am.

Did I mention Lois is depressed? Lois is really depressed. She is consistently even more critical of herself as a person than she deserves. She is also so consumed with interest in her work – which is, of course, an autistic trait – that she barely has patience for anything else. She consistently pushes herself hard enough that it actively worsens her pain, her sleep patterns, and her relationships with her family. And that’s before the supernatural horror aspect of the novel kicks into high gear.

When we try to think of good representation, we are so often thinking of role models. Lois is not that. She’s also not a stereotype, not a plot device, not a supercrip or Evil Disabled Person. She’s a flawed, complex, breathing human whose flaws and complexity are fully portrayed. She is not sugarcoated, and once I got used to her level of internalized ableism – “A defective person, raising a defective child“, as she calls herself at one point – I appreciated that.

(I’m reminded of a Short Story Smorgasbord I did a while back, when I said that I didn’t object to having unlikeable autistic protagonists, I just didn’t think the one in that particular story was done well. I guess it’s time to put my money where my mouth was: Lois is an unlikeable autistic protagonist, done right.)

I mentioned supernatural horror. The vintage film Lois discovered was made a century earlier, by a woman named Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb, whose life strongly parallels Lois’s. Both are subtly autistic, depressed women, possessed by an intense vocation, and struggling to care for an autistic son. Iris’s son Hyatt is described in obviously autistic terms, but the references to Iris’s autism go by so quick you could almost miss them:

“People understood,” Moraine said. “They knew she had more than enough on her plate to deal with already. She was eccentric, sad – special, just like her boy.”

So that makes four autistic characters. (Lois suggests at one point that Simon is also on or close to the spectrum. I’m not sure about that one.) But Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb’s life is also haunted by a spectre known as Lady Midday – a murderous god demanding worship from anyone unfortunate enough to look at her.

We are first introduced to Lady Midday in a fairy tale: she approaches people out working in the fields at noon, and questions them. The way to survive an encounter with Lady Midday, according to the tale, is to be humble and courteous, to insist that you are happy working, to refuse all offers of rest or water – and, above all, to avoid looking at her. As in many fairy tales, characters who behave properly are rewarded. Characters who fail get their heads cut off.

Iris sees her compulsive art-making as work assigned to her by Lady Midday, work she cannot stop. We find out later in the book that Lady Midday was actually worshipped, pre-WWI, by certain European villages. They, like Iris, see her as gifting certain individuals with work assignments that they can never stop, no matter how long they live. These villagers would also perform human sacrifices in Lady Midday’s honor, burying alive their elderly parents and “changeling” children. Sacrificing, in other words, the disabled to her.

(I have to break in at this point. I was VERY WORRIED that this novel was going to go the child-murder route. It does not. Murdering disabled children is mentioned, briefly, as a thing that people did in the historical past. But that’s all. At no point in the book is any named character tempted to be violent to their child.)

Lady Midday is an elusive figure, one who defies precise definition – after all, that would be looking at her. But inasmuch as it’s possible to assign meaning to her, I can’t help but view Lady Midday as an avatar of ableism. She predates capitalism, but she personifies the capitalist view in which a person is only a vector for work. One only has worth if one is working, without end, hiding and denying whatever toll it might take. In which the people who cannot do this work might as well be dead.

Lois, a driven Aspie longing for professional recognition, hating herself for human weakness, pushing incessantly past her health problems, and terrified of how her colleagues will treat her if she falters, is perfectly positioned to fall under this spell. She is also perfectly positioned to thwart Lady Midday, in the end – not by abandoning her work, but by radically reconsidering what is important to her as she does it.

As for Clark, he’s not given the detailed treatment that he would have if he were the protagonist. There’s a limit to what can be shown of him given that the entire novel is written in the POV of his mother, whose statements about Clark are often unreliable. Within those limits, though, Files shows us strong hints of who he is as a person. Clark is enthusiastic, affectionate, and quite loud; his speech is almost entirely echolalic, but a meaning can frequently be discerned. His role in the plot is not particularly active: he’s first a distraction from Lois’s work, then a source of eerie foreshadowing, then a child actively endangered by supernatural phenomena, before he finally returns to a Lois who has learned to appreciate him a little more. I might have liked to see more agency from Clark, but given that he is a child, and given the kind of story he is in, I really don’t know if anything could realistically be changed.

Reading this book and talking about it with a few of my friends, I’m struck by how little we have in the way of language for people like Lois. The abusively ableist “Warrior Mother” schema is not appropriate for her. But we have very little language for her in the autism self-advocacy movement, either. We pay lip service to the idea that autistic people can be autism parents. But in practice, we tend to assume that a given parent is either for us or against us. We don’t make a lot of space to discuss autistic parents’ internalized ableism, overload, social pressure, conflicting support needs, or the many other factors that can make parenting a challenge – even for someone who intimately understands the spectrum and is not at all interested in excuses for abusing their child.

“Experimental Film” begins to create such a space, not by making Lois a role model or by talking about what she ought to do, but by letting her struggle. By showing the struggle in unapologetically intimate detail – and by showing Lois, by the end of the story, begin to make small steps forward.

“Experimental Film” is a book about multiple flawed and struggling autistic people whose lives catastrophically intersect. It is a book in which ableism is literally the villain. It shows the very ugly ways in which internalized ableism poisons our working lives, (paradoxically) our health, our ability to treat other disabled people properly, our relationships with the people who matter most to us, and our relationships with ourselves. It sugarcoats nothing. But it shows, in the end – without any quick or magic fixes – characters beginning to learn that there is another way.

The very ugliness of the internalized ableism, especially in early chapters, will make this a book that not every autistic reader can stomach. But for others, “Experimental Film” may be the book that they didn’t even know how desparately they needed.

The Verdict: Recommended

(Thanks are due to Rose Lemberg in particular, and also to Elizabeth Bartmess, A.C. Buchanan, and Bogi Takács, for a conversation that helped me solidify my thoughts about this book. All opinions expressed here are solely my own.)

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 29 And Three Quarters: Short Story Smorgasbord

Lesley L. Smith, “Bologna and Vanilla” (Daily Science Fiction, December 2014)
[Autistic author] A first contact flash story in which lexical-gustatory synesthesia helps the protagonist understand alien speech. I thought that the synesthesia was a bit simplistically handled, compared to Luna Lindsey’s “Touch of Tides”, which has a similar premise. But we can always use more stories in which thinking or sensing differently from other people is the key to success. [YMMV, but I liked it]
*
A.C. Buchanan, “Invisible City” (self-published, February 2015)
[Autistic author] A novelette about a man traumatized by his experiences in a country which, because of magic, no longer exists. There are no autistic characters here, but it’s a very good story about memory, dictatorship, rebellion, and the human tendency to pretend that terrible things never happened. This makes it, strangely, more timely now than it was at the time of its release. [Recommended]
*
An Owomoyela, “Unauthorized Access” (Lightspeed, September 2016)
A young woman named Aedo is let out of jail for hacking – and immediately gets sucked into another, even more dangerous hacking project. It’s subtle at first, but I definitely read Aedo as an Aspie due to repeated mentions of her social awkwardness, dislike of eye contact, preference for expressing herself by typing, etc. I really like that the story centers someone who can talk, but has an easier time writing, and that it shows how difficult that is to explain to other people without implying that it is therefore somehow bad or wrong. I also enjoyed the subversively realistic portrayal of hacker culture, and the way the tension ratchets up as Aedo realizes she’s being used. [Recommended]
*
Bogi Takács, “Good People in a Small Space” (free Patreon reward, December 2016)
[Autistic author] A very short, very cute story set in the same universe as Bogi’s Iwunen Interstellar Investigations web serial. Several people from Eren, a planet of autistic people, feature prominently in the story. The viewpoint character, while not autistic, does a good job respectfully adjusting their behavior to make their interactions more comfortable for the Ereni. There are also some adorably polite negotiations around pain, and some ARTISINAL LOGIC PUZZLES. [Recommended]
*
Merc Rustad, “Monster Girls Don’t Cry” (Uncanny, January 2017)
[Autistic author] A horror story about monsters and the people who try to make them “normal”, with and without their consent. There are no autistic characters, but autistic readers (among others) will relate very hard to the themes of social pressure, closeting, and forced normalization. Please take the content warning at the top of the story seriously – and considering the number of autistic readers who have trauma related to this, there should also be a content warning for non-consensual medical treatment / surgery. It’s all sensitively handled, though, and there is a well-earned happy ending. [Recommended]

Autistic Book Party, Episode 28 And A Half: Short Story Smorgasbord

Pat Murphy, “Inappropriate Behavior” (scifi.com, 2004; reprinted in Escape Pod)

A young autistic girl named Annie remotely operates a mining robot on a deserted island. After a storm, a shipwrecked man washes up on the island needing assistance, but the adults working with Annie may be too preoccupied giving her therapy to listen to what she says about him.

I thought that this was a really clever story. Annie’s point of view is well written, distinctively autistic, and believable. The remote operation technology and its effects on her senses are very interesting, and the critique of NT therapists is so on point that it hurts. A few sections felt like they over-explained about what autism is, but this was probably necessary in order to make sure NT readers understood the story, especially in 2004, and most sections are not like this. I also wish that some attention had been paid to the potentially exploitative relationship between Annie and the mining company. Some of what she does in the mining robot is profitable for them, despite being classed as “therapy”, but the conflict of interest between their profit and Annie’s wellbeing is not addressed. Overall, though, the story is enjoyable and effectively accomplishes what it sets out to do. [Recommended]

*

George R. Galuschak, “Counting Cracks” (Strange Horizons, November 2011)

A strange alien noise invades Earth, killing or disabling most people, and a small band of mostly-autistic survivors sets out to deal with it at the source. I found this story difficult to follow, and some details were confusingly wrong. (For example, in the narrator’s backstory, his counting-related compulsions just… suddenly go away one day, and his sympathy for other people who think that way evaporates just as quickly.) However, I appreciated the story’s overall message, in which embracing autistic symptoms instead of suppressing them is the key to victory – and the characters continue to do so long after the victory is won. [YMMV]

*

Bogi Takács, “All Talk of Common Sense” (Polychrome Ink Volume III, May 2016)

[Autistic author] A flash story about an autistic court jester who discovers a deception from the court mage. The trope of disabled people becoming jesters, and using their disability to parody more powerful people, is well known. I like how the disability in this one – and the social prejudice it brings – is made plain without exoticizing. [Recommended]

*

Edward Willett, “I Count the Lights” (Strangers Among Us, August 2016)

A diplomat needs to solve a murder on an alien planet, but the only one who can help him is an intellectually disabled alien. The alien’s neurotype is considered holy on their planet, but the diplomat takes an immediate dislike to him.

I was on the fence about whether to include this story in Autistic Book Party. It features both the aforementioned alien and a human with a similar disability, which might be autism (rocking, repetitive behavior, and difficulty with complex language) or might be another developmental disability. I decided to err on the side of inclusion.

The story is well told, and the diplomat learns over the course of the story to value both of the disabled character’s contributions. Unfortunately, the main reason why he learns this is because both of the characters prove useful to him in solving the mystery, and his action in response to this is to… graciously allow them to continue being useful to him. Considering that, and the POV character’s initially very strong ableism, I wasn’t super thrilled with the contribution of the story overall. [YMMV, but I didn’t like it]

*

Helen Stubbs, “Uncontainable” (Apex Magazine, December 2016)

A barely-communicative little girl prone to violent meltdowns is the only one who understands a terrible secret. This story echoes some aspects of changeling folklore, but with a nice twist. Someone is stealing children’s souls, but the disabled child is not the victim of this stealing nor an inferior replacement for a stolen child. Instead she becomes the one who bravely saves the other children around her, even though the adults don’t understand. I liked that aspect of the story, but was less pleased with some other aspects, including the final scene, which seems to cement the girl’s role as an all-purpose knowing-terrible-things plot device rather than providing a logical reason why she would have known what was going on. [YMMV]